It was only a matter of time. The team turned out to the Phillies, but it could have been anyone, and the player turned to be Oregon State LHP Ben Wetzler, though it too could have been anyone. The disconnect between the NCAA rules and the reality governing the mating ritual between major league clubs and amateur prospects ensured that it would eventually come to this, with a player’s eligibility being compromised for doing what the vast majority of players in his position have done without incident, in the simple course of doing business.
Depending on one’s home base, an area scout can basically set his calendar a year in advance. I was based in the Northeast in my area scouting days, so we’ll use my calendar as a frame of reference. Just days after the annual Rule 4 draft, an initial follow list of top prospects for the next year’s draft is filed. Throughout the summer, while mixing in high school prospect showcases, college summer wood bat league games, coverage of minor league teams and tryout camps, you begin to visit the homes of the top prospects in your area, starting the process of getting to know the prospect and his family. Once school resumes, college scout day workouts begin, while the home visits with prospects continue. In the winter, it’s too cold to play, but you attend some indoor player workouts, while the home visits go on.
Once the spring season begins, a cold-weather scout will often head south to watch their snow-birding college prospects, but once the weather warms, you head back north to watch the prospects play, and to continue to meet with prospects and their families, following up with the kids who have been prospects all along, and getting to know the ones who are just beginning to make their mark.
In these visits, medical information may be collected, the prospects may be given psychological and vision tests, but by and large, there is conversation. Conversation about professional baseball, the lifestyle, the minor leagues, the spring training facility, you name it. Over time you learn what makes each player tick, get a feel for who the ultimate decision-maker in the family is, and try to develop the relationship to the point that a level of trust is in place for when the important, financially-based questions begin to be asked late in the spring prior to the draft.
Suffice it to stay, this relationship-building process is a very significant component of an area scout’s job, both in terms of importance and quantity of time spent. Why is so much time spent in this regard? To avoid exactly what happened in the Phillies/Ben Wetzler situation.
Put yourself in the shoes of a high school or college prospect or of their mother or father. The player has always been the star of the team, the first one picked, and has on many occasions been pursued diligently by third parties long before the area scout walked in the door. The traveling teams, the colleges, the agents/advisors in some cases, have all come calling. The player and his family, quite likely, have little sense as to where the player’s talent fits in within the context of the entire country, and unless their last name is Upton, Cecchini or Frazier, likely have little idea regarding the nuances of the major league draft. The family gets one shot at it, and for the player’s sake, they have to do everything within their power to get it right.
The area scout, who at the entry level doesn’t earn much of a salary, is the club employee responsible for developing that relationship, being the human embodiment of his major league franchise to the player and his family, and their resource for guidance throughout the draft process. The objective is not necessarily to improve the player’s chances of signing with the area scout’s club – in fact, that possibility is out of his hands, as he could do everything right and still have a one in thirty shot of getting an opportunity to sign the player, with the trigger being pulled several layers of responsibility above him. More than anything, the area scout’s responsibility to eliminate the grey area – black or white are both fine.
If at the end of the process, a high school prospect has been educated regarding the realities of the draft and pro baseball, and the inherent differences between the pro and college experiences – for better and for worse – and makes a clear decision prior to the draft, this benefits the club, even is the decision is in favor of college baseball. The club in most cases will simply use their pick on someone else, and avoid the severe consequence of a wasted draft pick. Ideally, money should not be the sole or even primary driver of a player’s decision. In the real world, however, everyone has their price. This is where the whole thing gets dicey.
Every spring, a hard-working area scout doing his job appropriately will come across one or more “pop-up” prospects. Never heard of him before, got a tip, and lo and behold, kid is throwing 92 with a functional breaking ball. Right now I’m thinking of a specific high school prospect from my area a decade ago who fit that profile, and reached the big leagues last season. There are several stages that families of such prospects tend to go through: 1) Thrilled to get attention from a scout; 2) Very receptive to information about draft and pro ball, solid sum of money plus college scholarship money that doesn’t go away sounds good to them; 3) Local “expert” from their area enters picture, pumps up family’s financial expectations beyond reason, and 4) Family has to make a final call regarding their financial requirements for the draft. If all goes well, the final result is black or white, and not grey, and there are no regrets.
Problems arise when a team thinks it has a final answer regarding the player’s financial requirements, only for them to change after the player is drafted. Today, teams have an assigned draft pool, and each and every player is drafted with a specific signing amount in mind, making the entire relationship-building process more important than ever. I am not here to pass judgment upon the Philadelphia Phillies, or upon Ben Wetzler and/or his advisor. Most likely, the Phillies thought Wetzler would sign for a certain amount, and the player changed his mind. That’s his prerogative, but at the same time, the club had invested not only a valuable 5th round pick in the player, but also a great deal of time and effort in scouting and developing a relationship with the player so that the eventual result would not occur. Most clubs in this position lick their wounds and move on. At this stage, however, the Phils took the seemingly draconian step of reporting the player to the NCAA for improper use of an advisor. No matter the details of the negotiation process in this specific case, the Phillies have clearly made no friends in the agent/advisor community, and repercussions could well be felt in drafted player negotiations going forward.
The obvious elephant in the room is this – almost every player in every year’s draft has an advisor in this day and age. The top prospects not only have representatives of 30 teams traipse into their living rooms, they also have a handful of agents doing the same exact thing. Without going into great detail, if the letter of the current NCAA law was to be enforced with regard to the actual role of agents/advisors in the signing process, let’s just say that quite a few more players’ NCAA eligibility would be compromised. It only makes sense – for most players/families, this is one of the largest financial and life decisions they will ever make. Retention of a legal/financial professional’s assistance would seem to be the normal course of business, at least at the top of the draft.
Some of my fondest memories of area scouting are of the relationships developed with players and their families, and not only with the ones you were lucky enough to have drafted and eventually sign. It is a great feeling to walk into a ballpark with scouts present from all 30 clubs, and to have the prospect single you out for a personal welcome just after he finishes throwing his bullpen. It feels great to be invited to a draftee’s wedding, years after you meet him. The relationships developed often pay real baseball dividends as well.
Like the time a New York City high school catcher who played in the city championship game the day after being drafted. I watched advisors literally chase his mother around the ballpark handing her business cards. She came directly to me and said, “Come to my house tomorrow, let’s get this done”. The family had been educated regarding the draft, the rounds, the dollars, and had developed a trust in me. We got the deal done the next day.
Or the time a draft-and-follow New Jersey pitcher had a final decision to make. His car was packed for his trip to college, taking with it any chances of him signing a pro contract. I was welcomed into the home one final time, and after we talked into the wee hours of the morning, the player’s best friend gave him life advice in words that I never could have. The player signed.
Or the time another New Jersey pitcher was the first player to agree to terms in his draft year. We had determined exactly how much it would take to sign the player in advance, but just as we were ready to select him, I received a call from the player’s father. Another team had called during the draft, offering more. I responded that our money was real, that we were moments from selecting him, and called upon the trust that had been developed between us. We drafted him, and he immediately signed.
Or the time I had dinner at a chain restaurant with an outfield prospect, his mother and grandmother. After discussing terms for a period of time, and making little progress, they asked me to step out for a moment. I came back a few minutes later, and he immediately agreed to terms. Only later did I find out that the grandmother had basically read him the riot act, and he listened. God bless her.
Stories like this happen in every draft – some, unlike those referenced above, involve contact with advisors. Relationships and levels of trust are built, enabling players to embark upon their professional dream. I consider many of the players and families – and agents – with whom I have interacted friends, and maintain ongoing relationships with them. As in any professional pursuit, interpersonal relationships are the engine that makes things work.
Something broke down in the Phillies/Wetzler case. Most likely, it was simply the case of a player changing his mind, which can and has happened to every club, with the club then taking a fairly drastic, risky measure to register their displeasure. The Phillies very well may have done everything perfectly in their evaluation and eventual drafting of Wetzler, and it wasn’t enough. Moving forward, it would certainly be in all parties’ best interest to recognize that the agent/advisor has a role in the signing process, and that this role should be more realistically spelled out in the NCAA regulations. Such a development will benefit all parties, but most of all the young, aspiring athlete in need of professional guidance that is occasionally beyond the reach of his parents and immediate family members.